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Published on: June 3, 2014
Inconvenient Truths
What Europe Gets Wrong About Energy Security

European reliance on Russian natural gas is in large part a self-inflicted wound.

The crisis in Ukraine raised concerns about European energy security, triggering calls for stronger coordination among the G-7 governments and the broader European community. This led the G-7 leaders to issue the March 24 Hague Declaration in support of Ukrainian sovereignty. The declaration called on the group’s Energy Ministers to convene and seek ways to strengthen Europe’s energy security.

This they did, and in their May 6 meeting in Rome the ministers issued a joint statement committing to “a systematic and enduring step change to improve energy security at national, regional, and global levels.” But their statement reflects a failure to recognize the actual root of Europe’s current energy predicament. European reliance on Russian natural gas is in large part a self-inflicted wound. One can’t after all hail environmental issues über alles, effectively ruling out all other sources of base load, 24/7 electricity generation except natural gas, and then be taken seriously when complaining that Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the leverage handed to him on a green platter.

While the G-7 Energy Ministers recognized that fossil fuels still remain an important element of Europe’s energy mix, they trumpet climate policies as conducive to stronger energy security. Wrong. The G-7’s continued prioritization of climate policy is sure to prolong the Kremlin’s stronghold over Europe’s energy security.

Energy security and greenhouse gas reduction may complement each other in some areas, but a Venn diagram of the two would show only a small area of overlap. Energy security means a reliable supply of energy at an affordable price. Cutting coal use may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but if coal is replaced by Russian natural gas, then reliability is compromised. If it is replaced by intermittent sources of power like solar and wind, the likelihood of power supply interruptions rises. Improving the reliability of renewable electricity by coupling it with expensive energy storage and backup power capacity—invariably provided by natural gas—means affordability takes a hit. Connecting and integrating multiple generating devices and smart meters into a smart grid environment may increase the efficiency of the grid and help reduce emissions, but at the expense of greater susceptibility to hacking and cyber-attacks.

The Rome statement also implies that climate change has a thoroughly negative impact on energy security and therefore G-7 policies should focus on mitigating it. This assumption is not well founded. Elevated sea levels or occasional climate-induced storms could damage a refinery or a pipeline here and there. But one cannot ignore the positive contribution of climate change to energy security: Defrosting of the Arctic Ocean, Siberia and Greenland will open new areas for exploration of oil, gas, and minerals and create new trade routes for energy. By adding vast sources of energy to the European market, these climate driven developments could strengthen—not weaken—the continent’s energy security.

The upcoming G-7 meeting in Brussels provides a good opportunity for Europe to disavow itself from the no doubt comforting myth that the climate policies it has embraced can strengthen energy security. It’s also a good time for Europe to confront the inconvenient truth that its energy predicament is not only due to Moscow’s shenanigans but is also to a large extent a European “own goal.” Europe should use the crisis in Ukraine as an opportunity to reassess the pace and pathway of its departure from coal.

Much attention has been placed in recent months on America’s potential contribution to Europe’s energy security with respect to natural gas exports—the fruition of which will take a long time due to logistics constraints—but little on its ability to export coal. Attractive U.S. natural gas prices, not to mention an inhospitable regulatory climate, are pushing American electric utilities to shift from coal-fired power generation to natural gas-powered turbines. Home to 27 percent of the world’s reserves, the United States has a huge amount of coal that can be utilized by European consumers. However, America accounts for only 11 percent of world’s coal trade, far lower than its reserve base permits. This level could be ramped up if Europe amended its position on coal.

Europe should also reassess its approach toward nuclear power. The continent has essentially turned its back on this clean source of power. Europe today has 141 nuclear power plants in operation, a third of the world’s fleet. But many of these reactors are aging and their replacement is slow. Of the 72 reactors currently under construction worldwide, only five are in Europe. On the other hand, Russia and China are moving at full throttle in their nuclear expansion. Russia has ten reactors under construction and China has 29. Throughout the G-7 economies the nuclear power industry is being squeezed out of the energy marketplace while hegemony over nuclear technology is gradually shifting to the east. As a recent IAGS report warns, without continuous development of know-how and technical infrastructure by the Transatlantic community it will be China and Russia that will become the world’s hubs on all nuclear matters, and it will be in those two countries, not the G-7, where the best practices and safety standards of the new generation of nuclear reactors will be determined.

For Europe, energy security should not only be about the diversification of gas supply away from Russia but also the diversification of energy commodities overall. Natural gas, whether conventional or unconventional, is an important component of Europe’s energy basket, but it would be to Europe’s detriment to ditch the workhorses of its energy system and throw its energy security under the bus in the service of environmental priorities and utopian thinking.

Gal Luft and Anne Korin are co-directors of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and co-authors of Petropoly: The Collapse of America's Energy Security Paradigm.
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  • ShadrachSmith

    Vote for Greens, and they will distort energy prices till nothing works anymore. This is a painfully simple situation. Demagoguery works, and the best demagogues aren’t always working in the nation’s best interest.

    Thus it has always been.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    In a hundred years or so, when the collapse of the west is complete and being studied by Chinese historians, I believe it will be the triumph of green ideology which will be given primary credit for the collapse. Has any other civilization in history ever voluntarily destroyed itself like this?

  • Pingback: Europe: Energy Security for Climate Change()

  • john

    Interesting. Every power generation source except PV is a mature technology. They are about as efficient as they will ever be. But if you look at PV the cost per MWh is still dropping like a stone thrown off a cliff. Where will it end up? Who knows. But you can bet that it will be lower than natural gas in the next five years.

    • LarryD

      Pretend the price of solar cells is zero. Assume an efficiency 20% at the cell level. Now, how much does it cost to build and maintain a 250 MW *average output* (not nameplate output) in, say, Germany. Include the cost of the baseload generator necessary for when it’s cloudy.

      Then you’ll understand why PV in never going to be other than a niche product.

  • George Purcell

    Back in the 1980s the Reagan administration begged western Europe not to build these pipelines. They were, of course, lambasted as stupid old cold warriors for this position.

  • Pingback: Energy Quote of the Day: ‘It Would be to Europe’s Detriment to Ditch the Workhorses of Its Energy System…’ « Breaking Energy - Energy industry news, analysis, and commentary()

  • http://www.windsofchange.net/ Joe Katzman

    Prediction: Western Europe (and hence Brussels) will respond, instead, by accepting and finding ways to justify its dependence on Russia and accommodation of Russian interests.

    Basis: Post-Ukraine actions make it clear that Europe has no appetite for sanctions, and the commercial class in France and Germany wants issues with Russia to go away. The Left will not abandon their Green ideology, and some of their funding trail probably still leads to the Kremlin. Their natural opponents are the nationalist right, who are also very accommodating of Russia as an open flouter of their intra-national “near enemy’s” ideological justifications for rule. We’re also seeing reports of a funding trail from Russia that leads to at least some of those hard-right parties. Challenge: assemble an effective political coalition in the face of opposition from the Left, Right, and commercial classes. Nope. Hence my prediction.

    The authors are operating at the wrong level of organization in their analysis. They need to move lower, and analyze specific nations in Europe and its near-neighborhood with means and motive to change the game.

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